Oates' pinpoint passing skills were second only to Gretzky's
Posted: Monday April 5, 2004 6:39PM; Updated: Monday April 5, 2004 7:03PM
Adam Oates finished his 19-year career with 1,420 points in 1,337 career games.
Ian Tomlinson/Getty Images
A few months after I wrote a profile on Adam Oates, in the spring of 2001, I ran into Ron Wilson, then Oates' coach with the Capitals.
"You know how your piece talked about how he's a hard guy to get to know?" Wilson asked. "Adam was reading that part in the locker room and the thing is, he was really happy about it. We were just scratching our heads. I mean, it's true, of course. But why would you like that as your image?"
Oates was indeed a mystery in hockey circles. Off the ice, his calm detached manner and unblinking gaze made him seem aloof. On the ice, opponents and teammates were left wondering just how it was that a stocky, unprepossessing center out of the ECAC, slow as a two-cylinder Zamboni, could be one of the most effective offensive players the NHL has ever seen.
Oates retired last Sunday, at 41, after 19 seasons. His 1,079 assists are more than all but five men have amassed. He scored 341 goals, too, averaged well over a point a game, and in the NHL's go-go early-90s he burst to stardom as the quieter, subtler half of the Blues' rock and rolling Hull and Oates duo. You could pencil him in for a 110-point season and a trip to the All-Star game every year.
"I have absolutely no regrets," Oates told the Edmonton Sun after his last game. "I'm a very lucky guy."
Oates made his luck on the sterngth of a singular skill. No one on the mortal side of Wayne Gretzky could feather pass to the tape of a scorer's stick more consistently than Oates. He exploited every passing lanes, sublty changing speeds, re-positioning himself.
"If you take away Oates you take away everyone on the ice," center Trevor Linden once said. "But it's hard because he's so aware."
Wilson, who built his offensive system around Oates and with that system went to the Stanley Cup finals in 1998, called him "the smartest player I've ever coached."
Those finals, and the one he played in last year with the Mighty Ducks, were as close as Oates came to winning a Stanley Cup. The missing championship leaves a potential Hall of Fame career lacking. But he remains a serious candidate for enshrinement, the only man ever to center three 50-goal scorers: Brett Hull, Cam Neely and Peter Bondra.
Now he has bowed out, taking with him a cleft hunk of jaw that is already in the pantheon of NHL facial features. For Oates, it was a quiet final season, just 18 points in 60 games, the last point, fittingly, a set up of an Igor Ulanov goal in Edmonton's season finale.
He made a career living up to the advice of his father -- "be unselfish," David Oates implored when Adam was starting out as a hockey player -- and if his teammates couldn't always figure him out that didn't mean they were complaining.
"He loves to watch you put the puck in the net," old partner Hull said of Oates a few years ago. "I never asked him why he didn't want to score more himself; I was afraid he would change his mind."
Sports Illustrated senior writer Kostya Kennedy takes sides each week at SI.com.